It was down to our own infant hands. In groups of three or four, rafts had to be hashed from bubblewrap and beer cans. If we weren’t buoyant within the hour, our child skulls would scratch at the ceiling. Our baby teeth would bite for the last of the classroom air. There was a lot of fun at first. Of people snowballing each other with duct tape that had come undone and curled itself into a spiked sphere. Or hitting one another over the head with weightless, exploding foam tongues. But as the time began to run short, that mood was undone. It was each group for itself. There were leaders, there were workers and a lot of no, no – that’s wrong piercing sharper in ears as the clock went down.
Not a toe was left on the tiles by the end. She clapped, and the sound filled every rung of the room. We were told that we’d made it out by the skin on our scalps, and that she was proud. Then the bell rang.
In the afternoon we added to our wall display of departed species. It had expanded to wrap around every brick in the wall. The ones that had been up on the walls longest, had begun to bleach under window-sun. Our polar bear had become a simple outline. A wobbly trail of black set on a background of dusty white sugar paper. Whatever direction your eyes wandered, you were met with a stare made in water-colour. Belonging an animal that was slowly evolving into a myth.
When we’d finished gluing the powerful limbs of a leopard onto its spotted torso – we gathered as a coven below Miss Greta, while she ascended the step ladder. When beast was impaled on a pale tree made from old newspaper, she raised both arms. Our sign to begin. Each child’s eyes travelled around the wall on the edge of her fingernail. When we arrived at a lost creature, we’d chant incantations in Latin. Performing each classification in turn. Miss Greta encouraged us to the edges of our young energy, to roar out their animal sounds until our voice boxes burned. Then Miss Greta would bow to us from on high. And to each in turn –
Be like the tiger, my daughter.
Be like the songbird, my son.
On those days, we’d arrive home spent. Miss Greta prepared us well. We’d sworn oaths to the wild. One day we’ll rouse them from oblivion. Raise them tooth and claw from their very test tubes, and retrain their wildest instincts.
The day of the leopard, was also the day of the white man in the corner. In a shirt and tie, and the most piercing pair of spectacles we’d ever see. Once the second bell of the day had rung, he left the classroom and took half of the gravity with him. Within the hour, Miss Greta was also gone. We’d been challenged to invoke water vapour from household scrap to the best of our means. Before even a drop had been realised, they came in a group, and led her away. Someone else filled in for the rest of that week. And the weeks after. Every time someone asked, we were told she was sick. That it can happen when old ladies go grey.
We are now a society organised from sticks and stones. You will struggle to believe it – but some of us youngsters have gone grey too. We build heat huts for the sick, where they are left to purge whatever it is that stops them in their work. We try every way we can to be strong, because we know what vulnerability can do. These are not peaceful times. As a collective we have become firm believers in scraping all but the final flake of luck from our surroundings, before moving on. We have learned to fashion the cell membrane of a home that can be comfortably slept in, and rolled to a new site if the need occurs. We always erect our camps on high ground. Floods and fights have forever stalked our transient towns. We seek the chaff of every charm we can find. When we are able, we gather to talk over any item rescued from the rubble. It can be difficult to agree on what was considered lucky. A lot has passed, and our memories are only as long as our age. Over the course of a day, a chain of all green things in our possession will move among us. Passing between fingers and thumbs until the light goes.
There is one among us charged with the keeping of the climate. A diary entry is scribbled every hour. Of wind behaviour, and the angles and origins of rainfalls. We hope that when the worst occurs, one day a pattern will emerge. Our seasons may be in flux. Our fields submerged by the rise of desalinated coasts. But there is no shame in digging for what we can, in the soil that is left. We utilize our agile farming techniques, and wield mattocks made from the offcuts of vacuum cleaners. They are sharp, light and strong. On a tough day, we’ll all say – be like the mattock, my son.’ The aim is to cultivate resilience as if it were the last diamond ever coaxed from the ground. Over the course of a new week, that activity alone can eat up considerable time. But when spat at by acid rains, or blown horizontal with dust on arid planes – we raise a smile and a trowel. For the world belongs to those who propagate potatoes in reclaimed guttering. Who pull carrots from an orphaned welly.
Small girls descend on ropes. It is left to them to replenish the great aquifers. They have learned the path to those barren chambers. Have endured and mapped out the dark, dry throats that were drilled by greedy fathers. Forced to invoke whatever perverse reverse-osmosis that their child brains can muster, they have shed blood underground to conjure moisture. Our girls have rock in their bones. Have stone in their belly like you wouldn’t believe.
You, who have turned the guts of our weather inside out. Our seasons, our festivals – are no longer your own. New calendars have had to be drawn. We keep the story simple, and the fires burning until dawn. We pass tales around the flames. Of parcels delivered promptly to doors. Recount memories of heavy money, round and gold. Of tiny creatures with wings of glass. Of crickets that would cluster in the grass. Making saw music on their limbs.
At midnight, we forbid anyone to feed the pyre. We have become superstitious over blazes that threaten never to go out. With every organ, we will our carbon currency into collapse. So that our eyes may gather in the ashes. A vigil that powders flat to the ground.
Once the embers have finally blinked out, we exchange warm handfuls among us. We pass the grey, and remember her. Taking a moment to study the fissures in our hands by the drowsy light of dawn. When all that is done. When our palms have taken on the hue of that fathomless, hollow sea – we join wrists. We saw arm against arm, and begin our song. Waiting on that compass point, and the sun.
When we can free up the bodies, we have vowed to raise her statue. Build her likeness from all the things that we’ve found no other use for. Some want Mother Nature pointing valiantly to some jungled horizon. But there are others who feel she should be clapping in the way that she did. As if she’d captured a terrible lie between her palms.